J. G. Ballard's Running Wild

Although J. G. Ballard has been on my radar for several years, it wasn't until I picked up W. Warren Wagar's Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things that the author really piqued my interest. Like many readers, I'd heard of Ballard in the context of David Cronenberg's 1998 film adaptation of Crash (which mustn't be confused with Paul Haggis's 2005 movie of the same name) and decided that I'd like to check him out, if I was ever in the mood to read about "people who get off while watching car crashes," as one of my friends summed the movie's plot up for me. Since I never really found myself in that particular mood, however, I didn't get around to reading Crash and Ballard's name simply appended itself to the ever-lengthening list of writers that I should probably read someday. When I read Wagar's fine study of apocalyptic fiction in preparation for my own course on the subject, though, J. G. Ballard leapt to the top of the list, thanks to the critic's insightful readings of novels like The DroughtThe Crystal World, and The Drowned World.

Unfortunately for me, I couldn't find any of Ballard's apocalyptic fiction, which is what really sparked my interest, so I settled for Crash and The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (the wonderful Complete Stories had not yet been released in the United States). Sooner than I would care to admit, I found myself thoroughly mesmerized by Crash and I quickly developed a taste for the so-called Oracle of Shepperton. Between the reading I had to do in preparation for the five courses I taught and the critical and philosophical literature I had to read as I finished my doctoral dissertation, however, I had little time or -- and this is crucial when dealing with a writer as cerebral and hallucinogenic as Ballard -- mental energy to devote to leisure reading, so I did not get a chance to revisit Ballard until this summer when, having finished both my dissertation and another year of teaching, I finally could jump back into his fiction. I began by reading two stories ("Billenium" and "The Man on the 99th Floor"), felt myself bitten by the Ballard bug again, and sought his fiction out in every bookstore I could find. With the exception of one small used bookstore, however, the selection of Ballard was usually limited to Crash and one of the two short story collections I'd already had. Needless to say, I snatched up Running Wild the moment I clapped eyes on the slim volume.

Part detective story, part social satire, Running Wild focuses on Dr. Richard Greville, a police psychiatrist, as he attempts to solve "The Pangbourne Massacre," a mass murder that has wiped out the entire adult population of an exclusive gated community thirty miles west of London. Oddly, no trace of the victims' children can be found anywhere in Pangbourne Villiage, a disturbing fact that leads investigators to assume the thirteen children and teenagers have been kidnapped. Lacking any real suspects in the case and, with only the most circumstantial evidence to go by, the police find themselves at an impasse and, out of desperation, turn to Greville for assistance in uncovering the truth about the massacre despite the doctor's having recently tarnished his reputation by filing "an unpopular minority report" on another mass killing (4).

As the reader follows Greville into Pangbourne Villiage, he or she becomes increasingly aware of an overwhelming media presence in and around the estate. Of course, given both the magnitude of the crime and the disappearance of thirteen children, neither the teeming crowds of national and international newspaper and television reporters nor the mass of tree- and roof-climbing "sightseers" outside Pangbourne Village seem especially out-of-the-ordinary (25). Likewise, the security cameras monitoring the inside of the estate are a perfectly reasonable extension of the safety-ensuring measures for which gated communities are sought out. Greville, like the now-deceased residents of Pangbourne Village, approves of the security measures, believing them to be signs of a highly-civilized culture improved by late twentieth-century social engineering. Still, as the reader slowly becomes aware of the sheer number of hidden security cameras and the proliferation of salacious television documentaries about the crime, the media presence becomes oppressive, even unnerving.

Embodying this discomfort with the estate's omnipresent security monitoring is Sergeant Payne, the local police figure assigned to maintain order at the post-massacre estate. Like many readers who will have guessed the identity of the culprit(s) within the first few pages of the novella, Payne is frustrated by the overly-optimistic doctor's inability to see the obvious cracks in Pangbourne Village's serene facade. Pointing out the regimented, planned-to-the-minute schedules of the residents, the parents' penchant for sending encouraging email from their bedroom to their children's personal computers, and the ability of the high-tech security cameras to peer into every nook and cranny of each house in Pangbourne Village, Payne paints a picture of a prison masquerading as an upper-class residential utopia.

Greville's obtuseness, not surprisingly, is one of the key devices Ballard deploys in what amounts to a timely satire of the bland, yuppified society celebrated during the height of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Greville's inability to see what's so obviously, forehead-slappingly amiss in the clockwork surveillance state of Pangbourne Village suggests that, deluded by uplifting rhetoric and sincerely wanting a better world, the best, most generous among us are complicit in creating a soulless and vacuous world of unparalleled convenience and banality.

Significantly, the darkest of Ballard's black humor appears during those passages when the doctor earnestly misreads obvious clues to the identity/identities of the killer(s) because he is so eager to believe the best about the residents of and philosophy behind Pangbourne Village. With Swiftian flair, Ballard has us laughing long and hard before, in a moment of painful self-recognition, we realize that we're not laughing at the well-intentioned Greville but at ourselves and our own tendency to believe what we want to believe about humanity, even when evidence to the contrary stares us in the face.

While the book may strike some as dated, Ballard is prescient in his anticipation of helicopter parents, reality television, the invasive potential of ubiquitous technology, many of the "unthinkable" mass shootings of the past twenty years, and tragedy-hungry media impresarios looking to meld news and entertainment.

Review by Erik Grayson
Originally published in Sobriquet Magazine's short-lived "The Literary Life" Blog

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